Before Lego songs and T-Swift co-signs, Tegan & Sara were just a well-loved but low-key folk pop band. Then Heartthrob came along and defined a new purist pop sound for years to come. At the very dawn of its explosion, we charted their moment. By Bronya Francis.
Excuse me whilst I wax fanatical, but Tegan & Sara are my favourite band. Ever. And no one will replace them. Why? They guided me through my teens, from my schoolgirl crushes (with the more emo If It Was You, especially ‘And Darling’ and ‘Want To Be Bad’), to my crippling self-consciousness (‘You Wouldn’t Like Me’, ‘I Can’t Take It’, and the rest of their 2004 full-length So Jealous), to my First Proper Break-Up (with their album, The Con, especially songs like ‘Nineteen’ and ‘Call It Off’). They’ve guided me through the most challenging, most emotionally erratic years of my life, and seem to have landed in the same chlorophyll green field of contentment with me, several years on.
Their track titles, and my personal listening context, all sound pretty emo – I guess their genre, if to be put into one, was an amalgamation of that and intelligent indie. And that was perfectly fitting in the alternative culture up until the mid-noughties. But now with the growth of the internet, the music industry has seen a homogenisation of genres in that our market now reflects the US’s mainstream and not so mainstream pop.
Whether they’re charting or not, there are a shitload of brilliantly written songs out there now. Tegan agrees: “Right now feels like a really exciting time in music because there are so many good, credible artists on the radio – specifically Florence, Gotye, Fun – all of these cool alternative crossover acts selling millions of records. So I think you can mix pop with credible artists who have a message.”
And so this couldn’t be a better time for her and Sara to resurface from working with Greg Kurstin to release their best album yet, Heartthrob. The title is reflective of its lyrical content. “It occurred to me that I’d never really written any love songs, and I started looking up all these different classic love songs which is how I came to wrote ‘Love They Say’,” Tegan tells me. “My inspiration lyrically for the record was not writing about where I am currently in love, but writing about the pre-adult, pre-relationship period, when you were sixteen or seventeen years old and you fell in love and you just had these crazy, uncontrollable crushes where you wouldn’t necessarily even think about telling someone how you felt about them. You were just so obsessed, and so content to be near them that you didn’t even need any sort of reciprocation; you could live off the feelings of your own obsession.”
Even though the Canadian twins may not be well known here in the UK, they sell out thousand-strong shows and have a dedicated fan base. “Communication is super important. If you go, ‘I’m just here for the music and if you show up that’s cool,’ that’s kinda like wanking, and I think that’s weird. If I played music just for me I’d get to stay at home and see my girlfriend every day,” says Tegan.
Her and Sara have never avoided talking about their career as a band, something that a lot of artists still avoid. A lot of rock groups still seem to be in it for the booze and birds; chart-topping vocalists are singing recession-influenced songs about life not being about money, yet in other ways they’re selling out through channels like endorsement deals and corporate shows. It’s hard to reach a happy medium between openly honest and fake, between having goals and being totally unmotivated. “I look back at the scene that really interested me as a kid led by bands that didn’t want to be on major labels; everything was about keeping ticket prices really low and being very much for the people,” reflects Sara. “But I went to see Ian Mackaye from Fugazi speaking in Montreal a few years ago; he was talking about straight edge culture and the idea of selling out, talking about where he’s gotten to now, the gist being that when they were promoting that stuff was a long time ago and that he’s obviously going to be different now than to what he was like then. You can be idyllic and say this is the way I’m always gonna be, but that would be crazy; I don’t have the same views that I used to have when I was eighteen or nineteen, some views have narrowed and some have broadened. I used to totally worry about being mainstream, selling out and whatever because I was still trying to establish who I was, and I was afraid that if we were being pulled in too many directions then that would dilute what I was hoping was our true, authentic self. Now that I feel very rooted in who I think I am as a person, as a woman and as an artist, I don’t think it’s possible for me to be diluted by the major label system or by radio stations or whatever. I know who I am, and I’m not gonna be changed – but that mentality takes time and years to develop.
“Not just as an artist but as a person, the purpose of life is bettering yourself and making yourself more solid. Musically, every time that I’ve felt like we’ve reached a new plateau, I’m ready to move on to the next one. When we were in rehearsals for this bout of touring I was so down on myself, asking myself why the fuck I hadn’t taken vocal lessons in seventeen years, laying there in bed at night beating up myself for being so lazy. In my head I’m so hard on myself, but there’s always room to improve. Probably when you get old there’s some point at which you give up and you’re too tired to keep doing that; but as long as I still have the energy to keep bettering myself and setting new goals I’ll keep doing it – that’s when you’re really living.”
That mentality is party why I’ve loved Tegan & Sara since my first listen, aged fourteen. They’re a band whom you will covet, and who will support you throughout your whole life. And their new album? It’s better than anything Ace Of Base made.